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Fajada Butte and Yucca from Visitor Center Courtyard

In between a bunch of depressing news about budget cuts, the latest edition of Southwestern Archaeology Today links to a couple of interesting articles with considerable relevance to ChacoOne is about turkeys; I’ll do a post on it later.  The other is a column by Marc Simmons in the Santa Fe New Mexican on Pueblo clothing and how it has changed over time.

Diorama at Chaco Museum

Interestingly, in my experience visitors to Chaco don’t actually ask about clothing very often.  This may be due to the influence of a diorama in the visitor center museum which seems to answer any questions they might have, since it shows people in the course of various daily activities attired in loincloths and little else, which is pretty common for “Indians” in museum dioramas.  This “all loincloths all the time” interpretation is also common in artists’ renditions of “what life was like” on interpretive signs at many parks.  There aren’t many of these signs at Chaco, but they are quite common at some other parks such as Mesa Verde.  This all has a powerful effect on people’s perceptions, I think, because visual impressions are both stronger and more vivid than anything that can be explained in words.  Indeed, a woman once asked me, referring to the diorama, why the Chacoans had worn anything at all.  To this day I’m not sure what preconceptions she was bringing to the diorama, but clearly its implication that “the Indians” didn’t wear much had led her down that cognitive path.  This strong effect of the visual image is unfortunate, however, because quite a bit is known about how the Chacoans probably dressed, and all the evidence available strongly indicates that the diorama is totally wrong.

"Pithouse Life" Sign at Mesa Verde

But back to Simmons.  He’s one of the most renowned historians of New Mexico, and I’ve mentioned him before for his excellent book on the history of Albuquerque.  His specialty is the Spanish colonial era, so his column on Pueblo clothing draws most of its information from Spanish documents.  Those documents begin with the earliest exploratory expeditions in the sixteenth century, and they are generally thought to be pretty reliable in their descriptions of the people the explorers encountered.   The main thing that impressed those explorers about the Pueblos was how “civilized” they seemed in comparison to the hunter-gatherer groups they had seen further south.  Indeed, the name “Pueblo” itself, deriving originally from these reports, refers to the people’s settlement pattern based on large, permanent towns.

Pueblo Display at Chaco Visitor Center

Similarly, the main comments the chroniclers had about Pueblo clothing were about how substantial it was.  Men typically wore kilts, and women wore a type of dress known as a manta, made out of large square pieces of cloth.  The main material used was cotton, which was grown in the low-lying river valleys, especially in the Rio Abajo region at the southern end of the Pueblo domain, and traded to the villages in areas where cotton can’t be grown.  This cotton was woven into cloth, always by men, and often in ceremonial contexts in kivas or other important spaces.  The Spanish also remarked on the use of tanned buckskin or gamuza as an alternative material for clothes, especially nice during the cold winters.  Another item useful for keeping warm was the rabbit-fur coat, made of strips of rabbit hide woven together by women.  Footwear consisted primarily of leather moccasins known as teguas.

"Ceremonial Chamber" Sign at Mesa Verde Showing Men Weaving in Kiva

This information comes from a few hundred years after the fall of Chaco, of course.  A lot had changed in Pueblo culture during that period, so it would definitely be a mistake to simply project the Spanish reports back in time.  Luckily, we don’t have to.  Due to the good preservation at Chacoan sites, and the even better preservation at the cliff dwellings occupied slightly later, many examples of clothing have survived, though generally only in fragmentary condition.  These materials largely substantiate the Spanish accounts: Cloth is typically made out of cotton (probably underrepresented in the archaeological record because it doesn’t preserve very well), and cloaks made of woven rabbit fur and turkey feathers are common.

Sandals at Chaco Museum

The moccasins and leather garments are not generally found, however.  There is no shortage of footwear, but it takes the form of sandals made of yucca fibers.  These are very common and there are some indications that they may have had ritual importance in addition to their everyday use.  Leather moccasins during this period are rare to nonexistent in the Chacoan area, but common among the Fremont to the north in Utah, and they are even considered a diagnostic feature of the Fremont culture.

Bison Statue in Downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado

At some point between the fall of Chaco and the Spanish entradas, then, leather clothing and footwear seem to have been adopted by the Pueblos.  One theory to explain this, along with various other changes in Pueblo society during this period, links it to increased contact with Plains groups starting in the fourteenth century.  Another theory sees the adoption of leather clothing as associated with a prolonged period of climatic cooling, perhaps associated with the beginning of the Little Ice Age.  These two theories are not mutually exclusive, of course, and I think they actually complement each other nicely.  One proposed way of tying them together is a model in which cooling weather on the southern Plains leads to bison beginning to venture further south than they had before, which leads bison-hunting Plains people to follow them and come into contact with the Pueblos, whose increasingly efficient irrigation agriculture gives them surpluses of crops that they can exchange for meat, hides, and other bison products.  It’s notable that trade networks during this period seem to be oriented along an east-west axis connecting the Pueblos to the Plains, whereas trade during earlier periods seems to have been more north-south and connected to Mesoamerica.

Looking East toward the Great Plains from Las Vegas, New Mexico

Of course, this theory is by no means universally accepted, and there are other ways to interpret the changes in Pueblo material culture during this time.  Still, coming back to clothing specifically, I think all of this shows that the “Diorama Indian” loincloth-based attire has more to do with the preconceptions of the people who made the dioramas than with what people at Chaco and elsewhere actually wore.

Close-Up of Diorama at Chaco Museum

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New Mexico RailRunner Express, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Yesterday I went with my mom and my sister on the RailRunner to Santa Fe to check out the New Mexico History Museum, behind the Palace of the Governors.  It was the first time any of us had either taken the train or seen the museum, which just opened in 2009, and we were very impressed with both.  The museum is very well-designed, in a contemporary, interactive way, and unlike many museums it doesn’t overwhelm by putting too many things on display at once.  The items that are displayed are accompanied by extensive, bilingual (English and Spanish) interpretive texts which help to place them in context.  The approach is broad rather than deep, but it gives a good, balanced, and very accessible introduction to the rich history of the state.  Since it’s part of the Museum of New Mexico, the collections available for display are extensive, and the curators have selected some fascinating original items to show.  They have also arranged for loans of other important original items from other museums with extensive collections of material related to New Mexico history.

New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico

One such museum is the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which sponsored several important archaeological expeditions to the Southwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and thus has a large collection of artifacts, almost all of which remain locked away in storage rather than on display.  The American Museum doesn’t even seem to have a single permanent exhibition showing its Southwestern material.  (I haven’t been there yet myself, so I can’t confirm this personally.)  A lot of this material is from the Hyde Exploring Expedition excavations at Chaco, which the American Museum sponsored, and visitors at Chaco would often ask about these artifacts and whether they could see them anywhere.  When I would tell them the answer, that the artifacts were in New York and not on display, they would often get pretty upset, but I would just say that that’s what museums do: they collect things.  They display some things, but they collect much more than they display, so most of the stuff ends up in storage, awaiting future temporary exhibits or loans to other museums.

Bone Tools at Chaco Museum

With that context in mind, imagine my reaction when I walked into the permanent exhibition of the New Mexico History Museum and the very first artifact on display was a bone scraper from Pueblo Bonito on loan from the AMNH.  This particular scraper is one of the most famous and most spectacular of the artifacts found at Chaco.  It is inlaid with a band of turquoise and jet mosaic that is just exquisitely done.  It was found by the Hyde Expedition in 1897 in Room 38 of Pueblo Bonito, along with the even more famous jet frog, and it features prominently in the article George Pepper wrote on the artifacts from Room 38.  Being able to see the real thing, in person, is just extraordinary, and even more so for me because it was such an unexpected surprise.  Like I said, the AMNH collections from Chaco are almost completely inaccessible to the general public, which is very unfortunate since they include some of the most amazing artifacts ever found in the Southwest.  The loan of this scraper is a significant step away from that, and I congratulate both the AMNH and the NMHM for arranging for its loan and display.  There are a few other items from Chaco on display in the same gallery, but this is by far the most famous.  The museum doesn’t allow photography, so I don’t have a picture of the scraper, but I highly recommend a visit to see it to anyone interested in Chaco.

Jet Frog Replica at Chaco Museum

Pepper’s article includes a bit more information about the scraper.  It was found in the summer of 1897, the second season of work at Pueblo Bonito.  It was actually one of two similar scrapers found next to each other in the western part of Room 38, which is an unusually large rectangular room in the oldest part of the site, known as Old Bonito and made up mostly of small rooms with an early style of masonry, the most famous of which is probably Room 33.  The two scrapers in Room 38 were probably originally similarly decorated with mosaic inlay, but one of them was positioned in such a way that the inlay was pointed downward and had fallen out when it was found.  The other scraper, however, was positioned so that the inlay was facing up, and it was therefore preserved intact.  This is the scraper now on display in the NMHM.

Shell and Jet Display at Chaco Museum

The inlay consists of a combination of elongated and triangular pieces of turquoise and jet, alternating and arranged in bands in a way that produces a very striking effect.  The mosaic was put into a groove cut into the scraper just below the butt end and apparently attached with piñon gum.  Once all the pieces were in the whole surface was polished to a high sheen, which is very noticeable even today.

Turquoise Display at Chaco Museum

It is unfortunately very difficult to date the artifacts excavated by the Hyde Expedition.  Pepper kept detailed field notes during the excavations, and the work is therefore fairly well documented by the standards of the day, but those standards weren’t very high compared to today’s practices.  There were no absolute dating techniques available at the time, and even the relative dating technique of stratigraphic analysis was still being developed and was not used during the Hyde excavations.  All Pepper had to say about chronology in his article on Room 38 was that there was no evidence of contact with the Spanish.  The NMHM label for the AMNH scraper gives a range of AD 700 to 1130, which is basically the maximum range for Pueblo Bonito as a whole.  Given the very precise dating techniques available to Southwestern archaeologists today, it may be possible to narrow this down a bit, even with the unfortunate lack of context from the early excavations.  I know Steve Plog at the University of Virginia is working on reëvaluating the field notes and other information on these excavations to get more precise information.  The Chaco Archive, which is connected to this effort, has a lot of pictures and documents from the early excavations, and it seems like more stuff is being added to it all the time.

Old Bonito

Dating is particularly difficult for the Old Bonito artifacts, for a number of reasons.  Although the rooms were the earliest to be built at Pueblo Bonito, as suggested by the masonry style and confirmed by tree-ring dates, the artifacts within them probably date to much later, perhaps even to the very end of the occupation of the site.  They are both numerous and exquisite, which suggests that the rooms in Old Bonito may have been reused for storage of fine objects after they were no longer used for their original purpose, which would presumably have been after the expansion of Pueblo Bonito starting around AD 1040.  With objects made of organic materials, such as bone, it would be possible to try radiocarbon dating the artifacts themselves, but to my knowledge no one has attempted this, possibly because they are so fragile and valuable.  Thus, while it may be possible to narrow down the date range for the bone scraper, as of right now the very wide range given by the NMHM is probably the best way to go.
ResearchBlogging.org
Pepper, G. (1905). Ceremonial Objects and Ornaments from Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 7 (2), 183-197 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1905.7.2.02a00010

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Type I and Type II Masonry Abutting at Peñasco Blanco

One of the most distinctive things about Chaco, compared to other prehistoric settlements in the northern Southwest, is its stability and longevity.  While most earlier (and, for that matter, later) villages were apparently only occupied for one or two generations, Chaco was a major center for at least 300 years, and may have been occupied at a lower level of population for another hundred or so years after the end of its regional centrality.  Despite the apparent importance of this fact, however, it has received curiously little explicit attention in the scholarly literature on Chaco.  This is probably because the stability of Chaco is easy to see but very difficult to explain.  Any explanation will necessarily have to exist within a particular interpretation of what Chaco was, and given the enormous amount of dispute over that and the number of competing theories it’s hardly surprising that Chaco specialists have spent most of their time coming up with theories and arguing with each other, which has left little time for using those theories to specifically address the issue of stability.  That is, all theories that have been proposed to explain Chaco contain implicit explanations for its stability, but explications of those theories very rarely address stability explicitly.

Bonito-Style Masonry atop McElmo-Style Masonry, Pueblo del Arroyo

To some extent the explanation for Chaco’s stability depends on the exact nature of the Chaco system and the role of Chaco itself within it, which is a topic of considerable dispute among archaeologists, but there are also some more general factors that probably played a role in the unusual stability of Chaco.

Mealing Room with Row of Metates, Pueblo del Arroyo

The most important is probably the environment.  The details are still a bit unclear, but it does seem from extensive research on the ancient climate that the rise of Chaco coincided with a period of unusually wet conditions that made farming more productive and reliable than it had been before in the arid Southwest.  This would have made the accumulation of agricultural surplus easier than it had been before, which would in turn have increased the power and prestige of areas that were able to accumulate surpluses.  This still doesn’t explain why Chaco specifically became so large and important for so long, since it’s not in a very productive agricultural area even by southwestern standards, but it may in part have just been a matter of fortuitous circumstance: Chaco happened to be where people were starting to gather, after leaving their earlier settlements elsewhere, when conditions improved and they were able to stay there longer than had been possible in other places before.

Type I Masonry in Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

Another important factor was probably trade.  Chaco isn’t in a very good place to farm, but it is located in a strategic position between the productive agricultural areas further north and the mountainous areas further south, each of which may have produced things the other may have needed.  It’s not clear how much trade there was in things like agricultural products, which are rather difficult to transport over long distances without pack animals, but there was certainly a considerable amount of trade in pottery and valuable goods like turquoise, and Chaco is particularly known for the amount of material found there that originated elsewhere.  Some theories have posited that Chaco was a center for redistribution of goods, but there isn’t much direct evidence for this and it’s hard to determine how much stuff passed through Chaco on the way to somewhere else (because that stuff wouldn’t have left any evidence of ever having been at Chaco).  What is clear, though, is that whether or not substantial amounts of trade goods passed through Chaco, an enormous amount of important material came into Chaco and stayed there.  Turquoise is the best known example, but there were a lot of other things too, including exotic goods like copper bells and macaws brought up from Mexico.

McElmo-Style Masonry at Casa Chiquita

Whether from agricultural surplus or from trade, then, or possibly from both, Chaco was clearly a very wealthy place at its height, and it was probably that wealth that allowed it to last so long when other settlements had been so transient.  Favorable environmental conditions probably played a role in the ability of Chaco to accrue that wealth, but not necessarily in a straightforward way.  There may also have been other political, cultural, or religious factors that contributed to Chaco’s staying power.  One thing that’s interesting to note is that while Chaco did last a long time, its end seems to have come pretty rapidly.  Large-scale construction seems to have ended abruptly around AD 1130, and while a reduced population does seem to have remained in (or possibly returned to) the canyon until 1250 or so, the bulk of the population seems to have left for other settlements that ended up being occupied for much shorter periods.  That is, Chaco was occupied much longer than earlier settlements, but also much longer than most later settlements.  The fact that environmental conditions seem to have deteriorated as much at the end of the Chacoan era as they had improved at the beginning reinforces the impression that there’s some sort of relationship there.

McElmo-Style South Addition to Pueblo del Arroyo

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newaltolookingnorth

Looking North from New Alto

When I was working at Chaco, we would often get visitors who would complain about how hard it was to get there.  They usually focused on the road in and asked why there wasn’t more effort to pave it and make it more accessible to the American public.  After all, isn’t that what national parks are for?  Well, no, I would often respond.  The Park Service mission is preservation foremost and visitor services secondarily, and most of the time concerns about preservation trump concerns about accessibility and interpretation.  There is one interesting exception at Chaco, but for the most part the park is concerned more with preserving the sites than with showing them to the public.

areaclosedsign

"Area Closed" Sign on Peñasco Blanco Trail

Some people were satisfied with this explanation, but many weren’t.  I didn’t have much to say to those who took a more absolutist position on the right of the public to access the parks.  That’s just a basic philosophical difference, and the best we could do was agree to differ.

farmingtondowntownseeyousoon

Downtown Farmington, New Mexico

One thing I often thought about saying, however, was that it might be better to just build a full-scale model of Pueblo Bonito in downtown Farmington (or even Albuquerque).  For a lot of the visitors who come to Chaco, it’s really just a matter of seeing Pueblo Bonito, marveling at it, and going on their way.  They’re the ones who complain about how hard it is to get there; arguments about how the isolation is part of the point carry no water with them.  I never actually said this, but I do wonder if it might be a good idea.  One of the ways in which the two aspects of the Park Service mission are very much in tension is that preservation and visitation are not only different, they’re actually often in direct conflict.  Visitor impacts are among the most serious threats to the preservation of the sites.  Sometimes people deliberately vandalize the sites, carve their names one the canyon walls, or steal artifacts, but even the vast majority of visitors who don’t do anything deliberately nonetheless destabilize the sites just by being there, walking through them, inadvertently touching the walls, and so forth.  The biggest single thing the park could do to improve preservation of the sites would be to limit public access to them.

bonitofromabove

Pueblo Bonito from Above

A full-scale replica of Pueblo Bonito in another location would have a similar effect: drawing the casual visitors away from the canyon and leaving it to the more serious people who are willing to brave the road to get there.  There would be little need to recreate any of the other sites, except perhaps Casa Rinconada; Bonito is what people come to Chaco for.

rinconadalookingnorth

Casa Rinconada, Looking North

It won’t happen, of course, but it’s not as crazy an idea as it sounds.  I was reminded of it by Paul Barford’s recent post on an idea proposed by Trevor Watkins for dealing with the recent disputes among governments over some high-profile antiquities.  The proposal is to make replicas indistinguishable from the originals, then trade both the originals and the replicas back and forth between the source countries and the countries that currently have the objects without telling the public if what they see is original or a copy.  This seems like a bizarre thing to do, and I kind of doubt the source countries will be in favor of it (though they might like a version in which they get to keep the originals permanently and the acquiring countries have to make do with copies), but the proposal notes that there are actually some archaeological sites, particularly the Paleolithic caves at Lascaux and Altamira, that have full-scale replicas, and visitors seem to like them just fine and to even say that they are better than the originals because they allow better visibility of the interesting parts, which in the case of the caves are the cave paintings for which they are famous.  This is kind of an extreme version of the reconstruction of prehistoric sites that was popular in the Southwest in the 1930s, moving beyond that only in that the replicas are not adding on to the originals but are separate entirely.  In addition to being more convenient for visitors, this would also be better for preservation of the original sites.  I think American archaeology might actually be moving in this direction too, with the reburial of Baker Village after excavation, with only the protective capping on the walls visible from the service, being an early indication.

altolowwalls

Low Walls at Pueblo Alto

More directly relevant to Watkins’s proposal, perhaps, is the famous jet frog found in Room 38 at Pueblo Bonito by the Hyde Exploring Expedition in 1897.  Often considered one of the most remarkable Anasazi artifacts known, the frog is made of jet with turquoise inlay forming its eyes and neck, and is intact except for a couple of pieces of inlay on the neck.  Like all the rest of the material found by that expedition, the frog was sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where it remains to this day, not on display but somewhere back in the storage cabinets.

chacomuseumjetfrog

Jet Frog Replica at Chaco Museum

There is, however, a jet frog prominently displayed in the museum at the Chaco visitor center.  Although it is not labeled as such, this is an exact replica of the original, right down to the missing inlay pieces.  Since the American Museum is notoriously protective of its collections, this is the best the park could do to show what the jet frog looks like.  This is exactly what Watkins is advocating: exact replicas, put on display without any indication that they aren’t original.  Unlike his proposal, of course, in this case the original and the replica don’t move back and forth, but any real-life implementation of the proposal would probably end up that way.

chacomuseum

Museum of Chaco Culture

What all this goes to show, I think, is that most people who come to archaeological sites and museums to see the wonders of the past aren’t all that concerned with the “authenticity” of what they see.  Indeed, for a lot of people an impressive reconstruction is preferable to an unimpressive original.  We would get some people who really wanted all the sites to be rebuilt to their original state.  (No way that’s ever going to happen, for a lot of reasons.)  There are visitors who only want to see the “real stuff,” but it’s important to realize that that isn’t everybody, and it may not even be a majority.  Many people go to see this stuff as entertainment, and they judge it on that basis.
ResearchBlogging.org
Pepper, G. (1905). Ceremonial Objects and Ornaments from Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 7 (2), 183-197 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1905.7.2.02a00010

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Slouching towards Farmington

Post Office, Farmington, New Mexico

Post Office, Farmington, New Mexico

Today is my birthday.  I’m twenty-five years old.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was born in Farmington, New Mexico.  I wouldn’t say I’m “from” Farmington, though.  When I was at Chaco people would often ask where I was from, and I never knew quite how to answer.  Sometimes I would say “here!” and they would respond “No one’s from here!”  Well, the Navajos are, but yeah, fair enough.  I’m not really from Chaco.

San Juan Regional Medical Center, Farmington, New Mexico

San Juan Regional Medical Center, Farmington, New Mexico

Where am I from, though?  As I say, I was born in Farmington, at San Juan Regional Medical Center, but I never actually lived in Farmington.  In the rural southwest it’s very common for people to travel long distances to give birth, because hospitals are scarce, good hospitals are even scarcer, and families are often spread widely across the region.

113 North Wall Street, Farmington, New Mexico

113 North Wall Street, Farmington, New Mexico

I do have a lot of connections to Farmington, even though I wouldn’t say I’m from there.  My dad’s family has lived in the Farmington area since the 1880s, and I still have some cousins who live there.  My great-grandfather was born in Farmington in 1886, and both of my paternal grandparents were born there as well.  Farmington is certainly an important place in my heritage, despite my rather ambivalent attitude toward it.

Masonic Symbol at Animas Lodge #15, Farmington, New Mexico

Masonic Symbol at Animas Lodge #15, Farmington, New Mexico

When I was born my parents actually lived in Arizona, where they ran a trading post on the Navajo Reservation.  My dad’s family has been involved in Indian trading for 100 years now (a couple of my great-grandmother’s brothers built the family’s first trading post in 1909 ), and my grandmother and her sisters grew up at a trading post north of Chaco that my great-grandparents built in 1918.  My grandmother ended up inheriting that store, where my dad grew up, while her sisters went on to own their own stores elsewhere in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.

Tibbetts Middle School, Farmington, New Mexico

Tibbetts Middle School, Farmington, New Mexico

When it came time for my dad to go to school, his parents bought a house in Farmington, where he and his mother stayed during the week while he went to school.  On weekends they went back out to the store.  This was a common pattern for trading families.

Farmington Fire Department Station One, Farmington, New Mexico

Farmington Fire Department Station One, Farmington, New Mexico

When my dad grew up he ended up going out to manage a store his parents owned in Arizona, where he met my mom (who came out there for reasons of her own, but that’s another story).  They were still living there when I was born, and since my grandparents were still at their store near Farmington my mom decided to see an OB-GYN in Farmington when she was pregnant with me.  Thus, I was born in Farmington.  The first place I went from there, after a few days in the hospital, was not west to the store where my parents lived but southeast to the store where my grandparents lived.  Later we went home.

Greenlawn Cemetery, Farmington, New Mexico

Greenlawn Cemetery, Farmington, New Mexico

About a year after I was born my grandmother died in a tragic car accident, along with one of her sisters, and the whole structure of my dad’s family began to deteriorate.  My grandfather lived for another couple of years, but he was a broken man.  When my sister was born he was still alive, but my mom chose to have her in Flagstaff, which was closer.  At the same time the trading business was falling apart too, a casualty of the major changes sweeping the Navajo country with increasing acculturation and incorporation into the mainstream of the US economy.  By the time I was six my parents had decided to give up on trading and move to town.  My mom got a teaching certification, and my dad applied for a PhD program in history at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  He got in, so that’s where we moved.

University of New Mexico Entrance Sign

University of New Mexico Entrance Sign

I grew up mostly in Albuquerque.  That’s what I would usually tell visitors at Chaco when they asked where I was from, though I would usually also say I was born in Farmington.  I don’t know if I would really say I’m from Albuquerque.  It’s certainly the place I have spent the most time at this point, and it’s the city I’m most familiar with, but I never felt fully comfortable there, and I left as soon as I could and went to college back east.  I think I’ve made my peace with it at this point, but it’s not a place I really have any desire to live again.

UNM Alumni Memorial Chapel, Albuquerque, New Mexico

UNM Alumni Memorial Chapel, Albuquerque, New Mexico

My dad died two years and two days ago.  Colon cancer.  He was sixty years old.  Last year, on the first anniversary of his death, I met my mom and my sister, who both live in Albuquerque, in Jemez Springs and we went hiking in the mountains.  It was a nice, peaceful time for remembrance and togetherness.  This year, on the second anniversary, my mom and my sister hiked the same trail we hiked last year.  I couldn’t come, obviously, being away at school as I am, but I like the tradition that we seem to be developing, and whenever I’m in the area in the future I’ll participate in it.

Zimmerman Library at UNM, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Zimmerman Library at UNM, Albuquerque, New Mexico

We sold the store where we lived when I was young years ago, but we still own the store where my dad grew up.  It’s off the reservation, on private land that we own, so we can do what we like with it.  We don’t play any part in the management of it; we have a retired ranching couple run it for us and keep the buildings in shape.  But we still have it, and it remains a tangible symbol of a lifestyle and tradition that has very nearly vanished now.  I rarely mentioned it to visitors at Chaco, although I did do some presentations on trading posts in which I talked about it.  I did go up there a couple of times.  The emotions it evoked in me were complicated.

Signs at Hilltop Junction on US 550 between Chaco and Farmington

Signs at Hilltop Junction on US 550 between Chaco and Farmington

So where am I from?  Hard to say.  I don’t have a simple answer, and I don’t usually want to tell my whole life story when someone asks.  Here it is, though, in abbreviated form, in this post, so if anyone is curious they can take a look and judge for themselves.

"See You Soon" Sign, Farmington, New Mexico

"See You Soon" Sign, Farmington, New Mexico

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Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Although Chaco Canyon is one of the most important places in the United States where the remains of the impressive achievements of the prehistoric Anasazi people are preserved and open to the public, it is by no means the best-known or most popular.  Indeed, outside of the southwest Chaco is actually quite obscure.  I found this surprising when I first began to work there; having grown up in the southwest, I had sort of always known about Chaco.  Not in much detail, but it was always part of my understanding of the world.  It turns out, however, that people in other parts of the country, unless they’re particularly interested for some reason in southwestern archaeology, generally just haven’t ever heard of Chaco.

Oak Tree House, Mesa Verde

Oak Tree House, Mesa Verde

Not that they’re unaware of the Anasazi, of course.  But it’s not the Chaco Anasazi of the San Juan Basin that get the most public attention and tourist visitation.  Much better known are the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde.  Indeed, for a lot of people “Anasazi” and “cliff dweller” seem to be basically synonymous.  We would get a lot of people at Chaco asking if there were any cliff dwellings there.  (The answer is no.)

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

Cliff dwellings are, indeed, quite spectacular, and it’s no surprise that they would attract much more attention than other settings.  They are not very practical places to live, however, and very few people even among the Anasazi ever lived in them.  The vast majority of cliff dwellings known in the southwest date to a very short period of time, roughly the last half of the thirteenth century AD, after which much of the Colorado Plateau, including Mesa Verde, seems to have been totally abandoned.  Throughout this period, even when the cliff dwellings were occupied, the vast majority of people in the region lived in other types of sites, generally large, aggregated villages.

Square Tower House, Mesa Verde

Square Tower House, Mesa Verde

So why do cliff dwellings get so much attention?  One reason is that they’re much better-preserved than open sites.  The shelter of the cliff alcoves in which they are located protects cliff dwellings remarkably well, so that when they are excavated they tend to yield an astonishing variety of well-preserved material, including perishable materials like wood, cloth, and feathers.  As a result, excavations of cliff dwellings have provided a huge amount of information about the daily life of their inhabitants.  Chacoan great houses, due to their large size and fine construction, tend to preserve material better than most open sites as well, but nowhere near as well as cliff dwellings do.

Far View Visitor Center, Mesa Verde

Far View Visitor Center, Mesa Verde

In addition, many of the cliff dwellings, especially at Mesa Verde, were very actively promoted as tourist destinations by local entrepreneurs and guides, especially the Wetherill family of Mancos, Colorado (which also played a key role in early excavations there and elsewhere, including at Chaco).  Their spectacular settings and amazing preservation make cliff dwellings interesting even to those who have little interest in archaeology in general, so it was easy to make Mesa Verde and other areas with cliff dwellings into major tourist attractions, especially if they were in relatively close proximity to towns.  Since Chaco had none of these advantages, it has languished in relative obscurity.

Mesa Verde from Durango, Colorado

Mesa Verde from Durango, Colorado

The fact that Mesa Verde gets so much attention now, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that, except perhaps for a brief period in the thirteenth century, it was never a very important place in the region.  During the heyday of Chaco in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries Mesa Verde, while occupied at a fairly high level of population, was decidedly marginal compared to Chaco.  After the fall of Chaco it appears to have gained in prestige, and it may have been something of a local center for a while, but even at that time it’s likely that Aztec and other sites in the Totah region between Chaco and Mesa Verde were more important overall.

Far View Communities Sign, Mesa Verde

Far View Communities Sign, Mesa Verde

Considering this context, one obvious question arises: What, exactly, was the nature of the relationship between Chaco and Mesa Verde?  Visitors at Chaco, especially those who have just visited Mesa Verde (which is a lot of them), often ask this and related questions.  It’s rather confusing, because the information presented at Mesa Verde is very centered on Mesa Verde itself and doesn’t discuss much about the regional context, so people often get the sense that Mesa Verde was a lot more important than it actually seems to have been.  When they come to Chaco and see all this talk about how important Chaco was, they start to wonder how to reconcile the rather different stories they are getting at the two places.

Upper-Story Doorway at Far View House, Mesa Verde

Upper-Story Doorway at Far View House, Mesa Verde

So what was the relationship between the two?  The short answer is that no one knows.  This has been a very difficult topic to deal with in southwestern archaeology, especially since research on Chaco and research on Mesa Verde have generally been conducted by different people and institutions, with the resulting differences in focus and interpretation making it hard to combine the (voluminous) data on the two areas into a coherent whole.  Even recent attempts to synthesize data on the relationship have not been able to accomplish much.

Back Wall of Far View House, Mesa Verde

Back Wall of Far View House, Mesa Verde

One of the odder aspects of the situation is that there is remarkably little evidence of Chacoan influence at Mesa Verde itself.  While there are Chacoan outliers all over southwestern Colorado, and some of them show considerable evidence of quite direct and substantial influence from Chaco itself, the only site at Mesa Verde that has been suggested as a possible outlier, Far View House, shows only a rather vague resemblance to Chacoan architectural styles.  While its layout is rather similar to a McElmo-style Chacoan site, and its masonry is sort of McElmo-like as well, it’s much cruder than at many other likely outliers in Colorado that are even further from Chaco, such as Escalante and Lowry to the north.  It certainly looks like Far View House was inspired by Chacoan ideas in some fashion, but it really doesn’t look like Chaco itself had much to do with it.  It looks more like a local imitation of Chacoan style, made by people who were aware of Chaco and its style but didn’t know much about the details of it.

Masonry at Far View House, Mesa Verde

Masonry at Far View House, Mesa Verde

One of the really weird things about this is that, while Mesa Verde is rather distant from Chaco and correspondingly shows little Chacoan influence or evidence of having been incorporated into a Chacoan system of any kind, other sites further away, and in the same direction, show much more evidence of having been part of such a system.  While many of the furthest outliers, such as Edge of the Cedars, look like local imitations similar to Far View House, others, such as Lowry and Chimney Rock, are among the most clearly Chacoan-influenced outliers around, despite being among the most distant.

Masonry at Escalante Pueblo

Masonry at Escalante Pueblo

This suggests that if the Chacoan system was a reasonably well-integrated network with social or political aspects, its boundaries were quite complicated.  It apparently included the whole southern San Juan Basin as far north as the San Juan River, the whole middle and upper San Juan valley and the valleys of the major northern tributaries of the San Juan, and the Dolores River valley and Great Sage Plain further north, but not Mesa Verde, which lies right between the San Juan and the Great Sage Plain.

Masonry at Lowry Great House

Masonry at Lowry Great House

The implications of this are hard to understand, but one possibility is that the system was not, in fact, as well-integrated as it might seem at first glance, and that it may have been more a network of independent small polities loosely affiliated through adherence to a common social system or religious cult centered on Chaco.  This type of explanation has been pretty popular in Chacoan research over the past few years.  Another explanation, less popular these days, is that Chaco was a single integrated polity with far-flung and complicated boundaries, and that the people of Mesa Verde resisted its expansion and were never fully incorporated into it, so it expanded around them instead.  At this point it’s hard to say which of these is more plausible, and it’s quite possible that the real answer is something totally different from either.

McElmo-Style Masonry at Casa Chiquita

McElmo-Style Masonry at Casa Chiquita

One interesting sidenote is the odd and somewhat ambiguous evidence for continued Chacoan influence in Colorado even after the fall of Chaco itself.  Great houses, or structures that sort of resemble great houses, at least, continued to be built well into the 1200s in the Mesa Verde area, and it’s possible (though highly speculative) that part of the rise of Mesa Verde in the thirteenth century, to the extent that it did rise to regional prominence, was tied to a revival of Chacoan ideology symbolized by the construction of D-shaped structures with apparent ritual purposes.

Masonry at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Masonry at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

The best known of these structures is probably the Sun Temple at Mesa Verde itself, which seems to be associated with Cliff Palace and which also seems to have some astronomical alignments.  Interestingly, the masonry at the Sun Temple looks a lot more Chacoan than anything at Far View House, despite the fact that the Sun Temple was built long after Chaco had faded into obscurity and the fact that other sites built at Mesa Verde at the same time, such as Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House, have much cruder masonry.

Masonry at the Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

Masonry at the Sun Temple, Mesa Verde

There are a lot of questions remaining about this issue, and much more research remains to be done, but there are some tantalizing hints that untangling the connections between Chaco and Mesa Verde may shed light on a whole slew of continuing mysteries about the prehistory of the southwest.  There’s enough there to keep archaeologists busy for a long, long time.

Pipe Shrine House with Far View House in Background, Mesa Verde

Pipe Shrine House with Far View House in Background, Mesa Verde

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Kiva A at Pueblo Bonito

Kiva A at Pueblo Bonito

When I was working at Chaco one of the frequent questions we would get from visitors was about the extent of reconstruction of the sites there.  This would be phrased in various ways, with the background assumptions ranging from the idea that the sites were totally untouched to the idea that they were totally reconstructed.  The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between, but much closer to the untouched end than many people seemed to think.

Walls at Pueblo Bonito Showing Capping

Walls at Pueblo Bonito Showing Capping

Compared to a lot of other parks, Chaco has taken a pretty hands-off approach to reconstruction.  Most of the modern construction you see today on the sites in the canyon is only what is necessary for stabilization, which in most cases means capping along the tops of all the walls, and in some cases rebuilding of things like doorways where they have begun to deteriorate.  There has also been substantial re-mortaring of the stonework, especially on the exposed exterior walls, but in those cases the original stones are generally left in place.  Other than those few things, pretty much everything you see is original, and the fact that it’s in such good shape is due to the quality of the original construction rather than to anything the Park Service has done.  The figure we would usually cite was 15% reconstruction, 85% original; I don’t know where those numbers come from, and I suspect they’re largely guesswork, but some visitors just really want numbers, so we gave them some.

Casa Rinconada, Looking North

Casa Rinconada, Looking North

There are a few exceptions.  On some of the buildings there has been a bit more reconstruction than is typical throughout the park.  The most extensively rebuilt structure is Casa Rinconada, which was excavated in the 1930s when reconstruction was at its height of popularity.  The walls of Casa Rinconada were in a substantially reduced state when it was excavated, with big breaches in them at regular intervals, which is typical of great kivas when they are first found.  Gordon Vivian, who excavated the site as part of a UNM field school, also supervised the reconstruction.  He seems to have done a pretty good job, but as always it took some guesswork to restore the parts that hadn’t survived, and some of the stuff at the upper levels of the site was probably never there originally.  There’s also no real way to know how far up the walls went, so the height of the walls that you see today is basically a guess too.

Secret Passage into Casa Rinconada

Secret Passage into Casa Rinconada

Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl have also seen a bit more reconstruction than average, although nowhere near as much as Rinconada.  For one thing, their great kivas have also been restored in much the same manner as Rinconada, but less ambitiously, and the one at Chetro Ketl even shows some of the other floor and bench layers that were found when it was initially excavated.  Also, Neil Judd’s expedition in the 1920s repaired the many holes that had been punched in the back wall of Pueblo Bonito by pothunters in the late nineteenth century.  This work was done to erase that episode of Bonito’s history, so the masonry was intended to blend in seamlessly with the surrounding stonework, and it does.  It’s nearly impossible to tell where the original ends and where the reconstruction begins.  Judd’s group also did some restoring and stabilizing of the upper parts of the back wall.  Other than that, and the ubiquitous capping, Pueblo Bonito is basically unreconstructed.

Chetro Ketl from Above

Chetro Ketl from Above

Chetro Ketl was severely damaged by a flood in the late 1940s, and major parts of the north-central section along the back wall were basically totally rebuilt at that time.  Aside from that, however, there hasn’t been much reconstruction.  The other sites, whether excavated (e.g., Pueblo del Arroyo) or unexcavated (e.g., Hungo Pavi), have just been capped and shored up, without any additional rebuilding.

Plaza at Aztec West, Showing Reconstructed Great Kiva

Plaza at Aztec West, Showing Reconstructed Great Kiva

This is in contrast, of course, to many other parks in the southwest, where sites have been substantially rebuilt.  This work was done mostly in the 1930s, much of it by the CCC as part of the New Deal, and it therefore reflects understandings of the architecture as of that time.  The most spectacular example of rebuilding is probably the great kiva at Aztec, which was completely restored in the 1930s in accordance with somewhat speculative interpretations of its original condition made by Earl Morris when he excavated it a couple of decades earlier.  Like many other examples of rebuilding, however, the great kiva is now generally thought to be inaccurate in some respects, most notably the roof level, which is almost certainly much too high.

Reconstructed Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument

Reconstructed Great Kiva, Aztec Ruins National Monument

This is the big problem with rebuilding: if you rebuild something according to even the best understanding of the archaeology at the time you do it, but understandings of the archaeology then change (which is not an uncommon occurrence at all), you’re kind of stuck.  What can you do?  Tear down the earlier reconstruction and start over?  But what if the new interpretations get superseded in their turn?  Just tear down the reconstruction and leave the ruins in place?  That seems like an awful lot of wasted effort.  The usual solution in these cases is to leave the reconstruction in place and put up a sign explaining to visitors how it is now thought to be inaccurate.  Hardly the most elegant way to deal with the issue, but at that point options are limited.

Inaccurately Reconstructed Room at Agate House, Petrified Forest National Park

Inaccurately Reconstructed Room at Agate House, Petrified Forest National Park

Another problem comes when sites that have been heavily reconstructed are used for certain types of research.  It’s very important to ensure that the research is looking at the original, rather than the rebuilt, parts of the site.  I mentioned this problem recently in connection with archaeoastronomical research at Wupatki, which has been very substantially reconstructed.

Partially Reconstructed Wall at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

Partially Reconstructed Wall at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

As a result of these concerns, today substantial reconstruction is rare.  Excavated sites are generally preserved in place as they are, with interpretive signs and literature provided to explain how they may have looked like originally.  This is satisfactory for most visitors, but some want more obvious visual cues.  For them the parks that have lots of reconstruction, such as Aztec, Bandelier, Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest, and others, are preferable to parks like Chaco that have a lighter touch.  But so be it.  You can’t please everyone.

Casa Rinconada from Pueblo Bonito

Casa Rinconada from Pueblo Bonito

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Fajada Butte from Chaco Housing Area

Fajada Butte from Chaco Housing Area

Today was my last day of work at Chaco.  I’ve been here for most of the past year, first as a volunteer, then as a seasonal park guide.  It’s been a great experience, but I’m quite ready to move on now.  While it’s been very nice to be able to spend this much time at Chaco, this is not the sort of job that I can see myself doing long-term.  This much contact with the public for this long has really worn me out.  In some ways, this blog is an attempt to take what I’ve learned at Chaco and put it out there in a permanent form so that it will still be there once my time at Chaco is over.  I will still keep the blog going, of course, but I’ve already used it to say most of the major things I felt like I needed to say.  From now on it will more closely reflect my evolving thinking on a variety of issues related to Chaco.

"Entrance Fees" Sign at Chaco Visitor Center

"Entrance Fees" Sign at Chaco Visitor Center

Many of those issues will likely revolve around the relevance of Chaco to our society today.  I’ve noted before that attempts by modern-day policymakers to apply lessons from the past have tended to founder on an incomplete or simply mistaken understanding of that past.  I’ll be doing my best to overcome this tendency, both through this blog and more directly.  I will be enrolling this fall in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.  Planning is, perhaps, a rather different field of endeavor from those in which I have been engaged before, but I think there are quite a few continuities from my perspective.

Sign at Entrance to Chaco Housing Area

Sign at Entrance to Chaco Housing Area

People on my tours have often asked me about my background and future plans.  Their reactions to learning that I’m going to grad school for city planning tend to fall into two groups: “that’s going to be pretty different from this, isn’t it?” and “I can see how that would be pretty similar to this.”  Obviously, my attitude is more in line with the second reaction.  I find it interesting, however, to see how people interpret Chaco in the context of modern city planning.  For some, the isolated, desolate setting of Chaco today is what predominates, and since they can’t imagine any place more rural and seemingly uninhabited than Chaco, city planning seems like the polar opposite of working at a place like Chaco.  For others, the scale and formality of the Chacoan system, especially within the canyon, makes more of an impression, and they can easily see how someone could go from studying this obviously planned cultural landscape to applying that knowledge to similar activities today.  I could speculate about what attributes correlate with these perspectives, but to be honest I haven’t noticed any particular pattern.  Not that I’ve been paying especially close attention.

Snow Ranger at Chaco Visitor Center

Snow Ranger at Chaco Visitor Center

I’m not going to go into detail here about the specific relevance of Chaco for modern-day planning, since I’ll surely be talking plenty about that in the future.  I will mention, however, the role I see archaeology playing in this.  In the post where I talked about how planners and architects never seem to take the right lessons from Chaco, I mentioned that archaeologists do seem to understand the importance of getting the information about the past right before hastily using it as an inspiration (or, even worse, a model) for modern practice.  I have a lot of problems with archaeology as a discipline, but at the same time I think it plays an indispensible role in acquiring ever-better information about the past and making that information available to the public.  I see myself as a consumer rather than a producer of such information; I’m certainly no archaeologist myself.  So, whatever issues I have, either practical or philosophical, about how archaeology is done, I have no compunctions about using the information that archaeology, flawed though it may be, has provided.

Pellet Stove at Chaco Visitor Center

Pellet Stove at Chaco Visitor Center

One issue that immediately rears its head in this context, however, is the inherently uncertain nature of archaeological understanding of the past.  Modern policymakers, to the extent that they think about the lessons of the past at all, tend to want an easy answer that they can immediately apply, and they’re very quick to grab one when it seems available.  Archaeologists tend to deplore this sort of behavior.  They themselves are much more cautious about how much they know and how much they don’t and may never know.  So, while many archaeologists will insist that their work is relevant to the present, they generally will not try to put it into the sort of form that the people who make the real-life decisions want, which ends up resulting in decisions being made with no heed to the past and its lessons.

Rainbow over Chaco Housing Area

Rainbow over Chaco Housing Area

One perceptive and quite useful approach to this issue comes in a short paper by Philip Duke in which he comments on the papers in a collection stemming from a conference on the archaeology of Chimney Rock, a fascinating Chacoan outlier in Colorado with nearly as many mysteries and theories seeking to solve them as Chaco itself.  Duke starts his essay with a parable:

Several years ago, an archaeologist happened to be at Chimney Rock with some of his students when they ran into a group of tourists being given a tour of the site by a USDA Forest Service guide.  As they followed the group for a short while, the archaeologist heard one of them whisper to her companion that this site didn’t look quite right.  This site, she went on, should be in the desert, not in the pines.  Clever person, he thought.  She spoiled it all, however, by confidently asserting that the archaeologists probably knew what it was doing there, and the guide would soon make it all clear.  When asked, the guide could only give “suggestions,” “guesses,” and “hypotheses.”

Closeup of Snow Ranger at Chaco Visitor Center

Closeup of Snow Ranger at Chaco Visitor Center

I’ve definitely encountered this attitude myself many times.  People want answers, and many see the role of archaeologists and guides as primarily being about providing them.  I’ve always tried to emphasize in my tours how much we don’t know about Chaco, and I’ve also tried to avoid presenting one theory over others as much as possible.  It sounds like the Forest Service guide at Chimney Rock had a similar attitude.  This is, of course, admirable to the archaeologists, but it isn’t at all what much of the public wants.  Many people like thinking about these questions themselves and coming up with their own answers, but many others have no interest in doing that and just want the experts to tell them what it’s all about so they know how to feel about it.  As Duke puts it:

[O]ur tourist clearly expected archaeology to give her the single and correct version of the past.  Our discipline has, with some success, tried to do this since its inception.  However, archaeology continually places itself into the conundrum of calling itself a science (we get more research money that way, you see), and then coming up with all sorts of very unscientific answers.  No wonder the public is confused by what archaeologists are exactly about and takes refuge in the comforting pages of National Geographic (now there’s Truth for you), or the latest Indiana Jones movie.

Scarlet Globemallows in Bloom at Chaco Housing Area

Scarlet Globemallows in Bloom at Chaco Housing Area

This is exactly right.  I’ve complained before about archaeologists presenting what they do as “science”; one of the main reasons for this, as Duke notes, is that there’s a lot more money out there for science than there is for other types of research, but another reason is that people love science.  Science offers the prospect of clear and decisive answers to complex, worrying problems.  Needless to say, this public image doesn’t bear much resemblance to how science actually works, and it bears much less resemblance to how archaeology, which isn’t really a “science” in any meaningful way, works.  So the public falls back on fictional and sensationalized accounts of the “experts” solving the world’s problems without any obstacle except perhaps a meddling bureaucrat (or Nazi).

Fajada Butte and Yucca from Visitor Center Courtyard

Fajada Butte and Yucca from Visitor Center Courtyard

Real archaeology, which is to say the work that archaeologists actually do, tends to fall out of view in this context.  Duke attributes this at least partly to the failures of both the culture-historical and processual approaches to deliver on the unambiguous answers that their theoretical paradigms implicity promise.  While both of these approaches have certainly delivered plenty of empirical information that has been very useful to shaping interpretations of the past, those interpretations are still affected by myriad other forces, many of them the result of political and social factors within our own society that affect our attitude toward knowledge in general and knowledge of the past in particular.  By embedding their research within a positivist framework that promises that there is a true past out there to discover, if only we search hard enough, these perspectives set the public up for a big letdown when they inevitably fail to find that true past and descend into arguments over how best to interpret the empirical results they have found.

Full Moon over Chaco Housing Area

Full Moon over Chaco Housing Area

Duke’s answer to this problem is to adopt a “post-processual” approach.  This is something of a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot, but the basic idea is that studies of the past should take into account the contingent historical circumstances of both the past and the present.  In the past, it tries to interpret the empirical evidence in the context of the society involved, rather than looking at things from a more general and abstract approach, keeping in mind the fact that that context is never totally knowable.  In the present, it takes heed of the fact that interpretations are inevitably affected by the background and social biases of the interpreters, which may change over time.  This is not a reason for rejecting the interpretations, necessarily, since the point is not that past interpretations are “bad” because they reflected the biases of the societies that produced them but that any interpretations, including those made today, are made in a social context that must be considered in evaluating them.

Foot Scraper in Front of Chaco Visitor Center

Foot Scraper in Front of Chaco Visitor Center

Finally, Duke argues that archaeologists need to engage with the public and show that multiple interpretations of the same “facts” are signs not of weakness but of strength.  It’s okay to disagree on things, and it’s healthy to have those disagreements out in the open and to explain to outsiders what they are about.  This is certainly what I’ve tried to do in my work, and while I’m not sure I’m totally convinced that Duke is right that post-processualism is the best vehicle for this message, if it works, great.  Americanist archaeology isn’t marked by the same sharp lines between processualism and post-processualism that affect archaeological debates so strongly in other places such as Europe, so there is more room for common effort and cooperative division of labor within the discipline here than elsewhere.  However it’s done, it’s important to do, and I think in the time since Duke wrote a considerable amount of progress has been made on this.

Portico at Chaco Housing Area

Portico at Chaco Housing Area

While debates within archaeology over the proper interpretation of the evidence are generally good and should be brought to public attention, I’m not completely sure that archaeologists themselves are the best people to do it.  Some certainly can explain the current state of interpretations of a given subject with grace and balance, but many are likely to inject a bit too much of their own perspective in ways that the public is unlikely to grasp, and others are likely to descend into overly jargon-ridden depths into which few dare to follow.  There is a need, therefore, for people on the outside to keep track of the archaeology and the research and debates therein in order to present it to the public, not in a totally unbiased way (because, remember, that isn’t really possible), but in a more detached way, from the perspective, perhaps, of a different discipline or profession.  This won’t necessarily mean that the people in authority (or anyone, for that matter) will be any more inclined to appreciate the ambiguity of the archaeological record, of course, but they are more likely to take that ambiguity seriously and to stop and think before acting if it’s explained to them by someone outside of archaeology in a way that they can understand.  That’s more or less the role I see for myself, and this blog, going forward.

Winter Solstice Sunset through My Bedroom Window

Winter Solstice Sunset through My Bedroom Window

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Where the Aliens Are

Petroglyph Panel with Complex Imagery

Petroglyph Panel with Complex Imagery

I’m not sure this really counts as a frequently asked question, but it is something entertaining that comes up from time to time.  There’s an idea out there, in certain circles, that the sites at Chaco were built by extraterrestrials.  This is not something we pay much attention to most of the time, but from time to time a visitor will ask about the aliens.  Usually they’re joking, but very occasionally they’re serious.  There’s not a whole lot we can do in those contexts except to be polite and tactful in declining to engage further.

Farmington Civic Center

Farmington Civic Center

A few weeks ago, our Chief of Interpretation went to the Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Farmington.  Tourism groups from all over the state were there, and many of them had little souvenirs that they were giving out.  The Roswell Chamber of Commerce was giving out little plastic aliens, which were green and about an inch tall.  Our Chief took some and gave us at the front desk one, apparently intended to be female, with a skirt and a little red bow on her head.  We named her Alvina and amused ourselves with moving her around to different locations on the big topographical map of  the canyon mounted vertically behind the Visitor Center desk.  If any visitors asked where the aliens were, we could show them on the map.

Topographical Map of Chaco Canyon behind Visitor Center Desk

Topographical Map of Chaco Canyon behind Visitor Center Desk

About a week ago, we suddenly noticed that Alvina was missing.  This was a matter of great consternation.  Perhaps she returned to her home planet.  Perhaps some little kid saw her on the map and grabbed her while no one was looking.  It’s hard to say what happened, but she was gone and we had no idea where she had gone off to.

Alvino the Alien

Alvino the Alien

Luckily, however, we had a spare alien.  One of my coworkers had gotten a little white plastic alien in a gumball machine a while back and gave it to me.  When I went in yesterday for my goodbye party (I’m leaving at the end of this week), I brought in the alien and donated it to the front desk as a replacement for the dear departed Alvina.  This one seems to be male, as it’s wearing a blazer, so we dubbed it Alvino and placed it on the map.  He’s hiking the South Mesa Trail.  Note that he is on the trail, setting a good example for the visitors.

Alvino Hiking the South Mesa Trail

Alvino Hiking the South Mesa Trail

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Roads

Welcome Sign at North Entrance

Welcome Sign at North Entrance

I first visited Chaco Canyon in the summer of 2003.  I had just graduated from high school and would be going off to college in the fall.  My parents decided that visiting Chaco would be a good idea, since I had never been there despite having grown up in New Mexico.  We went out there with a couple who are both old family friends and old Chaco hands; the husband is an archaeologist who worked on the Chaco Project and the wife is an anthropologist who did oral history work in the area around the same time.  We camped in the campground, then spent the next day visiting the sites and hiking up to the Pueblo Bonito overlook on the Pueblo Alto trail.  Our friends showed us around and pointed out things we may not have noticed on our own.  It was a great experience, and I have many fond memories of it.

Pueblo Bonito from Above

Pueblo Bonito from Above

One thing I don’t remember is the road coming in.  This may surprise many readers who have been to Chaco.  For many, perhaps most, of the visitors we get, the road is one of the most memorable parts of the trip.  After the turnoff from US Highway 550 it’s eight miles of pavement, then thirteen miles of heavily washboarded dirt.  Most of our visitors don’t seem to be used to dirt roads at all, and they often enter the Visitor Center shaken, jarred, or even furious.  Some demand to know why the road isn’t paved.  Others, who generally have more experience with dirt roads, ask why it hasn’t been graded recently.  Others ask if there is another way out of the park.  (There is, to the south on NM 57, but it’s even worse.)  Still others are too shocked to say much of anything, but it’s clear that they consider that road a nearly insurmountable obstacle to reaching the park.  As, indeed, it is; Chaco gets many fewer visitors than most comparable parks in the area.  Mesa Verde gets about ten times as many (and it shows).  If the road were paved, visitorship would surely skyrocket, as would the fame of the place.  To many visitors it is hard to fathom why this has not already happened.

Line for Tour Tickets at Far View Visitor Center, Mesa Verde

Line for Tour Tickets at Far View Visitor Center, Mesa Verde

Some other visitors, however, come into the Visitor Center and express their appreciation for the fact that the road still isn’t paved.  These are generally people who have been to the park before, often though not necessarily people who live in the southwest, and they are generally pleasantly surprised to see how little has changed since they last visited.  They understand that the road is the only thing keeping the crowds and the pink cement at bay, and they like that.  The isolation that is one of the most notable things about Chaco is in some ways quite artificial, and it’s mainly the nature and reputation of the road that keeps it that way.

North Entrance to Chaco on County Road 7950

North Entrance to Chaco on County Road 7950

When people ask about the road, I often tell them that there’s talk of paving it, which there is, but that it’s a controversial issue, which it is.  This surprises a lot of people who can’t seem to grasp the idea that anyone would not want the road to be paved.  I often explain the situation as a case of some people wanting change and others not wanting it, and sometimes I go into more detail about the two sides.

Escavada Wash and North Road to Chaco

Escavada Wash and North Road to Chaco

There has been a big push lately by San Juan County, which maintains the road, to pave it; a couple of county commissioners are really pushing for it for reasons that are somewhat obscure.  Unlike in the past, the pro-paving advocates now have many of the local Navajo residents on their side, and the Navajo Nation Department of Transportation is also in favor of paving.  Although the Navajo Nation is not responsible for the road and doesn’t have any formal authority over it, some of the land it crosses is owned by the Navajo Nation, so there is a connection there.  Recently the county got funding for paving and tried to push ahead with it without going through the whole mandated process for doing so, and the groups on the other side of the issue called them on it and noted that they needed to go through the required environmental assessments and such.  As it turned out, those studies ended up using up all of the funding available.  Then the economy collapsed, so it’s unlikely that the road is going to be paved any time soon.

Curve on North Road

Curve on North Road

So who are these groups on the other side?  Well, certainly many of the local Navajos are still opposed to paving and the changes it would bring, but the most vocal opponents are the people who like the park the way it is and have been coming to it for years.  They don’t want the crowds and the restrictions on access that they would force the park to impose, and they don’t see the road as nearly the obstacle that others perceive.  As far as they’re concerned, Chaco is fine the way it is, anyone who really wants to go there can, and there’s no reason to mess with things.

Cattleguard on North Road into Chaco

Cattleguard on North Road

And, indeed, they have a point.  I certainly like the place the way it is and see no reason to change it.  As I mentioned above, the road is not something I remember from my first visit.  Growing up in the southwest, I would travel on so many dirt roads much longer and rougher than this one that it didn’t even register as anything unusual to me.  It’s certainly a pretty good road as dirt roads go, and the washboarding is just the result of the amount of traffic it gets.

South Road to Chaco

South Road to Chaco

I’m not sure I’m totally on board with the paving opponents, though.  While I think the road is fine as is, I don’t see the need to be so vehement in opposing change.  Chaco isn’t perfect, and while I certainly wouldn’t want to work here if it got the kinds of crowds Mesa Verde gets, I think that kind of traffic would force some much-needed changes in the way the park is run that would ultimately protect the resources better.  While it’s nice to be able to wander around the sites without needing to be supervised or on a guided tour, it makes it much too easy for visitors to do damage, whether deliberate or inadvertent, and the way the number of artifacts lying around each site varies inversely with the amount of visitation each one gets speaks to the amount of theft that goes on even given the generally responsible visitors we get.  Clamping down the way Mesa Verde does would be a big shift, but probably ultimately a worthwhile one.

"Rough Road" Sign at South Entrance

"Rough Road" Sign at South Entrance

Not that I see any need to push vehemently for paving either, of course.  Like I said before, I like Chaco fine the way it is and see no reason to change, despite the possible advantages of change that I just noted.  Basically, I see no reason to care strongly one way or the other, so I take a position of studied neutrality and try to explain the situation in as balanced a manner as possible when people ask.  This has the result of shifting visitors from the pro-paving to the anti-paving camps surprisingly often.

"You're Entitled" Sign in Farmington, New Mexico

"You're Entitled" Sign in Farmington, New Mexico

Not always, of course.  There’s a definite sense of entitlement out there among a lot of people, a sense of outrage at the idea that the convenience of the traveling public is not everyone’s highest priority, a sense that National Parks and World Heritage Sites should be as accessible as possible.  It’s a coherent and rational worldview, just not one that meshes well with the way things work at Chaco.  There are actually not that many people who express this attitude strongly, but those who do will not be dissuaded from it, and I don’t try to dissuade them.  In these contexts it becomes more of a live-and-let-live matter, and the most I can do is hear them out, which I do.  It often makes them calm down, but it doesn’t change their opinions.

Cattleguard at North Entrance to Chaco

Cattleguard at North Entrance to Chaco

The irony of all this, of course, is that Chaco is also strongly associated with roads of a very different sort.  The ancient Chacoans built an elaborate system of roads both within and beyond the canyon, traces of which can still be seen today (though generally not from ground level).  While some of these roads were known from the earliest studies of Chaco in the early twentieth century, knowledge of them had been largely forgotten by the 1970s, when they were rediscovered with a vengeance.  The discovery of the extent of the roads, which have been found not only within the canyon and radiating out from it but in the vicinity of many outliers as well, was a crucial part of the reinterpretation of Chaco as a regional system.  The roads have been given a lot of emphasis in many theories about this system.

New Sign at Kin Ya'a, Free of Bullet Holes

Sign at Kin Ya'a Showing Roads

Up until the early 1990s almost everyone who worked on the roads interpreted them as a transportation network used for some practical purpose, perhaps transporting the vast quantities of wood and other materials from the outlying areas to the canyon or, in more ritual-based theories, facilitating pilgrimages to the canyon.  Some theories combine different functions for the roads.  The fact of the existence of the road network was a major piece of evidence for the strongly integrated, centralized system that most archaeologists envisioned Chaco to be, and the presence of roads was even used to define the extent of the system.

Jackson Stairway

Jackson Stairway

There are some problems with these interpretations, however, and by the 1990s some archaeologists began pointing them out.  For one thing, the roads are massively overbuilt for any functional purpose.  They vary in width, but outside of the canyon are typically about 30 feet wide.  They are so wide, and so shallow, that they are usually not visible on the ground and have mostly been identified through aerial photography.  In a society without draft animals or wheeled vehicles, it’s hard to see why a road that wide would be necessary for any practical use.  They are also extraordinarily straight.  Although there are a few examples of road segments that curve, for the most part road segments run on very precise bearings for considerable distance, and when they do change direction they do so with very sharp, angular turns.  They also make little or no allowance for topography: when a road segment comes to a steep slope or sheer cliff, rather than changing the bearing or winding up via switchbacks it generally goes straight up via a ramp or staircase cut into the rock.  This preserves the straightness of the bearing, at the cost of an enormous amount of work.

Ramp View

Ramp View

In addition, while at least two roads (the Great North Road and the South Road) have been determined to run more or less continuously for many miles, most of the roads actually consist of short, discontinuous sections.  In most earlier theories it was assumed that this was just because parts of them had eroded away, and there is surely something to that, but there are also short segments, especially near great houses, that don’t seem to line up with any other segments.

Stairway behind Hungo Pavi

Stairway behind Hungo Pavi

These features of the roads suggest that they are either more or less than practical transportation routes.  Some archaeologists have therefore argued that they served more of a ritual or ceremonial function, perhaps integrating the system in an abstract rather than physical way.  The first to argue this was John Roney in a 1992 paper in which he pointed out the discontinuous nature of the roads and their greater elaboration near great houses.  He argued from this that the roads are actually elements of the great-house landscape rather than long-distance routes, and that their main function may actually have been the integrative effect of community effort in building them.  From a slightly different tack, Michael Marshall has argued that the longer roads may have been oriented toward significant landscape features, such as Kutz Canyon and Hosta Butte, rather than outlying communities, and that they served as grandiose elements of a ritualized landscape.

Hosta Butte from New Alto

Hosta Butte from New Alto

In any case, while the morphology of the roads has been fairly well established, debates continue to rage over their function.  One consideration that does not seem to have received much attention in these debates is the widespread presence of road networks in Mesoamerica, which suggests that the roads might be another example of Mesoamerican influence on the Chaco system.  Whatever the roads were, however, they certainly required a lot of effort to build, and while I think their importance to the meaning of the Chaco system has often been overstated, they are definitely a major aspect of it that bears consideration.

Room Forming Base for Stairway at Talus Unit behind Chetro Ketl

Room Forming Base for Stairway at Talus Unit behind Chetro Ketl

Past and present, in the minds of many, Chaco is about roads.  In some respects, it would probably be accurate to say that the ancient roads were better than the modern ones.  While in both contexts roads are not among the things I find most significant or meaningful about Chaco, they are certainly very important, and they will just as certainly provoke strong feelings of all sorts for a long time to come.

Fajada Butte from North Road

Fajada Butte from North Road

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